Forests of Christmas-ready pine trees, quaint rural villages, throwback passenger trains and millions of twinkling lights — no part of the state celebrates the holidays quite like East Texas.
The bedazzled display of lights in Marshall might be the best-known, but the whole Piney Woods region is stuffed full of old-fashioned holiday cheer, all of it family-friendly and most of it easy on the budget.
For an easy day trip or a quick weekend getaway, pick one (or more) of our favorite destinations; we guarantee you’ll be humming Christmas carols, craving candy canes and envisioning sugarplums on the drive home.
Wonderland of Lights Festival, Marshall
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What: Seemingly the whole town of Marshall (population, 24,000-and-change) gets decked out in holiday lights, with an estimated 10 million lights twinkling in more than 400 displays. The show has grown into a full-blown festival, with nightly synchronized light shows and free music shows, a Christmas-themed playground, carriage rides and, of course, Santa and his workshop.
When: Nov 27-Dec 31
The history: In the mid-’80s, when Marshall’s economy was severely depressed, a newspaper editorial challenged citizens to light up the town, and lift their spirits, by decorating the historic downtown with thousands of tiny white lights, says Ed Michel, executive director of the Marshall Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Marshall native Wendy Russell Reves, then living in France, saw the editorial and, unbidden, sent a $25,000 check. Townspeople raised thousands more dollars and worked tirelessly to hang the lights and craft homemade decorations. The Wonderland of Lights was born in time for Christmas, 1987.
Over the years, the displays got bigger and glitzier, with more buildings and private homes joining the fun. (Now, a crew of 10 workers starts stringing lights in October.) But a few years ago, Michel says, planners, realizing “you can only put so many lights on a building,” started adding more entertainment, like an open-air ice skating rink and live music.
Plan your visit: Especially on weekends, plan to arrive around 4 p.m., so the kids can decorate a cookie in Santa’s workshop or ride the minitrain, and explore the downtown shops and playground. Then, watch the synchronized light show, with 100,000 lights on the 1901 courthouse set to sparkle on cue to Christmas music.
Right afterward, there’s a music show in Telegraph Park across the street from the courthouse, then a second, shorter show nearby. Most visitors simply drive their own car and chart their own course through the lighted displays, but it’s more fun to take a tour in a horse-drawn carriage or, even better, aboard an English double-decker bus.
New this year: Climb aboard Snowflake, a 12-foot-tall wooden rocking horse, for pictures; take the whole family on the village hayride, gawking at lights as you go.
Details: Many events are free and do not require tickets, including the nightly courthouse light show, the music shows and the light displays. For prices and info about other events: 903-702-7777; www.visitmarshalltexas.org/.
Yesterland Farms, Canton
What: A cut-your-own-Christmas-tree farm on steroids: the 42-acre venue includes an old-timey amusement park, hayrides, concessions and a farm-animal zoo
When: Activities open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Nov. 29, and Saturdays-Sundays through Dec. 15. Tree sales only, 1 p.m.-dark weekdays.
The history: Chuck and Kama Bozeman started planting Christmas trees on their land in 1995, and in 2000, they opened for business as the Canton Christmas Tree Farm. But every year, they added more attractions, like rides, food, a Western ghost town and a zoo of farm animals. In 2011, after adding a pumpkin patch and a fall festival, they changed the name to Yesterland Farm, since, as Kama Bozeman says, “That’s really said who we were. We’re so much more than Christmas trees.”
Plan your visit: Theoretically, you can arrive, grab a saw, pick out and chop down a tree, and be on your way in 30 minutes — but what’s the fun in that?
Instead, make a day out of it: Take a hay ride through the woods, zip down the giant slide, climb the rock wall, let the kids enjoy a pony ride or plop onto Santa’s lap. You can bring your own picnic to the free picnic area, or load up on fair fare like corny dogs, kettle corn and funnel cakes.
You can even reserve a campfire site — for $50, the farm staff builds your fire and cleans it up; you just bring the hot dogs and s’mores fixings.
New this year: A new Western-themed roller coaster, dubbed The Range, goes through the farm’s nostalgic fort. Three more rides, including a gyroscope that twists and turns two riders every which way but loose, are also new this season.
While you’re there: You’re in Canton, so it would be a shame not to stop and do a little holiday shopping, right? The next First Monday Trade Days date is Nov. 28-Dec. 1, but during the holidays, you’ll find plenty of vendors and shops to explore every weekend.
Details: Ride tickets can be purchased individually, or a $16 pass includes all mechanical rides, the giant slide, and the rock wall. Some offerings, including the zoo, picnic area and hayride, are free. For more prices and details: 903-567-2255; http://yesterlandfarm.com/.
Santa Land, Lindale
What: The biggest, shiniest drive-through Christmas-light display in East Texas, with nearly 3 million lights draped over 24 acres of trees and handmade decorations.
When: Open 6-10:30 p.m. every night through Jan. 4
The history: Nearly 20 years ago, Cindy Palmer’s in-laws saw a drive-through Christmas park while on vacation in the Midwest and got the idea to do the same thing on land they already owned just off Interstate 20, near Tyler. “One string of lights at a time, with a handful of friends and family, they just started doing it,” Palmer says of the park, which opened for its first season in 1995. She and her husband, Wayne, now run the attraction.
This being Texas, of course, it soon grew into something bigger than life. There are now more than 25 themed areas and attractions, including 12-foot-tall soldiers, a giant cowboy boot, Santa’s village, a Christmas tree forest, and a glittering 250-foot-long “tunnel” of thousands of lights. The park is now a full-time concern for the Palmers: They finish taking down all the lights in February each year, only to start re-hanging them in May to be ready for the annual Nov. 1 opening date.
What’s new: Many of the lights are being converted to LED bulbs, making displays even brighter. The perennially popular angel section, dedicated to families who have lost children, has been revamped and enlarged. To help the long lines of traffic move faster during peak visiting times, they’ve added a second ticket booth.
Plan your visit: On busy weekends, cars have been known to get in line as early as 2 p.m., though Palmer suggests a more reasonable arrival time is 4 or 5 p.m. (Better yet, if schedules allow, visit during the week, when crowds are much smaller.) It takes about 30 minutes to see the whole park, or, as Cindy Palmer says, “however long it takes the car in front of you to get through it all.” Afterward, you can stop for hot chocolate, a chili dog or a warm apple dumpling at the concession area, or shop for toys, ornaments and gifts at the 4,000-square-foot gift shop. (The vendors you may see while waiting in line, outside the park, are not associated with Santa Land.)
Details: $25 per car; $35 per commercial van. Leave the driving to someone else and ride the open-air, decorated Santa’s Trailer through the park for $12 per person. 903-882-1518; santalandtexas.com.
“The Polar Express” Train Ride, Palestine
What: The Texas State Railroad transforms itself into the star of the beloved children’s book and movie, just for the Christmas season.
When: Departs at 3:45 p.m., 5:15 p.m., 6:45 p.m. and 8:10 p.m. Nov. 22-24, 29-30, and Dec. 1, 4-8, 11-23, 26-29
The history: The 2004 animated movie, starring Tom Hanks as a conductor who helps kids regain their sense of Christmas wonder via a secret train ride to the North Pole, was an instant holiday classic. Since 2007, the Texas State Railroad has been one of several trains across the country that is licensed to bring the film to life, says Janet Gregg, marketing manager for the Texas State Railroad. The trip includes a reading of the story, waiters serving hot chocolate, and an epic arrival at Santa’s workshop.
Plan your trip: Board the train at the Palestine station; kids are encouraged to wear their jammies, and often entire families show up in matching nightclothes, Gregg says. As the train pulls away, the story begins, with many families following the narration in their own storybooks. (Can’t quite place that narrator’s familiar voice? It’s actor Liam Neeson.) After waiters serve cookies and hot cocoa, the train emerges from the woods into the winter wonderland of the North Pole, complete with Santa and dancing elves. Santa even boards the train to give each child his or her own souvenir silver bell — just like in the movie.
While you’re there: Come early to explore the historic downtown district in Palestine; along with quaint antique shops, boutiques, and restaurants, the holiday season will bring an open-air skating rink and fun pop-up retail shops and art galleries (How can you skip a pop-up shop called The Christmas Pickle?) Check www.visitpalestine.com for special events. (On Dec. 7, for instance, there’s a historic homes tour, with old-fashioned trolleys ferrying visitors to decorated homes, and a Nutcracker Tea at the town’s historic Carnegie library building.)
Details: Reservations highly recommended; most departures sell out, especially those closest to Christmas. Children, $20-$75, adults, $40-99, depending on seating class. 877-726-7245; www.texasstaterr.com/.
Kilgore Rangerette Christmas show, Kilgore
When: Two shows only; 2 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8
The history: Before there were the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders or any of their hot-pants-wearing ilk, there were the Kilgore College Rangerettes — the world’s first all-women precision dance drill team when they debuted in 1940. (The idea was partly to attract more female students, and partly to keep folks in their seats at home football games, so they wouldn’t sneak under the bleachers to partake in frowned-upon adult beverages.) Since then, the dance team has consistently been recognized as one of the world’s best, bringing its high-kicking style to Singapore, Romania, Ireland, Cannes, and inauguration balls for the past two presidents. This is just the third year for the holiday show.
The show: Local dance and drill teams will perform, but the real stars will be the Rangerettes themselves, all 72 of them. They’ll be dancing in a variety of styles, from hip-hop to lyrical, and, yes, director Dana Blair promises, they’ll show off those famous sky-high kicks in the finale.
While you’re there: If you choose the later show, you’ll have time to visit the East Texas Oil Museum, also on the Kilgore College campus. It’s a surprisingly lively look at how the oil boom of the 1930s irrevocably changed East Texas, with the era brought to life through antiques, murals, movies and dioramas.
Details: Tickets are $10 and are now on sale. 903-983-8273; www.rangerette.com.